North Texas first responders taking extra precautions to deal with possible coronavirus cases

“The phrase of the day is preparation, not panic,” said Dr. Veer Vithalani, assistant medical director for MedStar.

Fort Worth first responders are in prep mode as new coronavirus cases surface in the United States.

The screening process starts when patients call 911.

“So the main questions that we ask are, risk of exposure,” Dr. Vithalani explained.

Patients are asked if they've traveled to mainland China or places where the coronavirus is an epidemic, or if they've had close contact with a suspected coronavirus patient.

“Right now, it's mainland China. As other countries develop epidemics, we would add those questionnaires,” said Dr. Vithalani. “If a patient screens positive, it immediately notifies responding fire and ems personnel.”

That triggers specific protocols for protective gear, beyond what's normally worn for common cold or flu.

“The problem with Covid 19 is we use airborne precautions because there is some concern that the virus is small enough to be outside of droplets, so we take one step higher level of protection,” Dr. Vithalani added.

That means a basic surgical mask will be placed on the patient, as usual, but with a suspected case of coronavirus, first responders will wear added protection, including a higher grade N-95 face mask, which is able to filter out the tiny particles of the virus.

They'll also wear a plastic gown and slippers, as well as an eye shield.

If it's a suspected case, the county health department would be notified, and the patient would go to the hospital under isolation precautions.

Fort Worth firefighters follow the same protocols, and assure residents while the response may look a little different, the quality of care remains the same.

 “It does not matter what your symptoms are or what your sicknesses are, you are going to get the same professional care from Fort Worth firefighters and MedStar paramedics no matter what, and that's what we are there for,” said Mike Drivdahl with the Fort Worth Fire Department.

MedStar officials said Tarrant County Public Health is aware of anyone who has a known or potentially known exposure to the coronavirus, and those cases are logged into the EMS dispatch system in case first responders get a call from one of those homes.

They say the more information they have sooner, the better.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he had a conversation with Vice President Mike Pence, who is President Donald Trump's point person on the coronavirus, on Thursday.

At the state level, they are working to make sure there are plans and resources in place in case an outbreak hits here.

Gov. Abbott also met with state officials in Austin as leaders plan out a response in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in Texas.

“This planning will include different scenarios, ranging from the status quo, to extreme pandemic, so we can prepare for anything that can happen along the range of potential outcomes,” Gov. Abbott said.

The governor said the state is in the process of getting in-state labs ready to be able to test for the coronavirus, so it doesn't have to be sent-off elsewhere.

State health officials are also checking with hospitals to see how many beds they can make available in case of an outbreak.

The governor said they are building on the lessons learned from Ebola and H1N1.

“The state has response plans for emergency situation like we are dealing with right now. The agencies are not starting from scratch,” Gov. Abbott said.